Reform needs to address firearm issues beyond those directly related to the Christchurch terrorist’s approach, and loopholes must be closed, writes William L.
Much needed change is coming. Firearms laws are tightening and far right extremists will be monitored as the danger they have been all along. The specifics of new legislation are not yet known, but the risk of loopholes and oversights need to be addressed, irrespective of whether they have any direct relation to what happened a fortnight ago.
It bears repeating that the vast majority of Kiwi firearms owners are safety conscious and law abiding. New legislation is intended to deter those that aren’t. Jacinda Ardern has promised to make all semi-automatic guns require an E category endorsement and ban high capacity magazines. Police will not be issuing new endorsements. This is just a stopgap, however. The gun lobby or dealers are likely to challenge that decision in court, which could open licensing back up.
The rejected clauses
In 2017, then police minister Paula Bennett rejected 12 of the 20 recommendations for tighter gun laws put forward to her by the Law and Order select committee. The rejected clauses set forth were:
- Requiring a license for the ownership of ammunition.
- A dealer’s license required to sell ammunition.
- Dealers keeping a record of all ammunition sold.
- A registry for all firearms selling websites.
- Police permits required to buy or receive any firearm allowing records to be kept.
- An inquiry into new licensing requirements for semi-auto firearms.
- Police recording serial numbers of all firearms during license renewal and storage checks.
- Dealer offenses to be automatically charged as aggravated level of offense.
- Police check guaranteeing adequate storage before issuing a licence.
- Allow police to check storage on private property at will.
- Failure to comply with storage resulting in immediate loss of licence.
- Police funding to bring awareness to amnesty provisions of the Arms Act.
Aside from police access to property being a contentious issue with regards to privacy rights, these provisions are common sense and easy to enact. Accepted provisions were barring gang members and prospects from licensing, allowing prohibition orders on license holders, stand down periods for those whose licenses are revoked, and a review of penalties for offending and checks on tourist brought weapons being legal transferred.
These provisions still leave many loopholes and fail to cover many areas of the law. Manually operated firearms such as bolt action and pump action currently have no capacity limit, meaning an owner can buy a 30-round magazine while saying it is for a manual gun. Some semi-autos have manually operated versions for sale in jurisdictions that have stricter gun laws – such as the Ruger 96/22, a lever action version of the popular 10/22 which share magazines. Without a blanket limit on capacity, a ban on high capacity semi-autos can be easily bypassed.
A limit of 15 for rimfire and 10 for centrefire cartridges would avoid this. Perversely pinned magazines are already restricted for semi-autos. It can hold more than legal capacity are banned from semi-autos but unrestricted from sale. Pinning a magazine to less than its full capability might be suggested as a compromise for magazines already in circulation. The problem with pinned mags is the easy ability to drill out the restriction, allowing the full capacity – currently a problem in Canada.
A gun registry is a necessity. Under current law, the firearm owner is registered but not the rifle. On top of that dealers aren’t required to hand over records of sales to police and private sales only require sighting of a license. There is currently no way to know how many firearms are in the country, their type, and their owner. A full registry matched by serial numbers and police oversight of private sales via transfer forms similar to those for automobiles will allow the government to better track the sale and ownership of firearms and see dangerous trends more quickly.
One A category license holder was able to buy dozens of guns, cutting them down to be concealable and selling them to various criminals and gang members without police realising until the guns were found in the community. An Auckland man bought $50,000 worth of firearms and ammunition over an 18-month period without arousing suspicion. A limit on the number of firearms capable of being purchased at one time and a full registry would aid in preventing this as well as waiting periods before receiving purchases. A limit could be introduced, capping purchases at one firearm every two weeks or month with a seven-day waiting period before receiving the firearm, during which time police and the dealer together ensure the owner is not attempting to buy from multiple stores or while under a suspension.
Limiting ammunition purchases is trickier. Compared to gun sales, the sheer number of ammo sales in the country is far too hard to track. Some manner of six-monthly review of sales records could cut down mass buying but buyers travelling between gun stores to buy multiple rounds is already a problem in the US with straw buying travelling between states to purchase thousands of dollars of rounds to supply the Mexican cartels.
Online sales should be vetted by police including ammunition and certain parts. An investigative journalist bought a .22LR rifle from a Gun City store online with a fake license number showing the need for police oversight of sales. Gun City owner David Tipple released a statement saying that he would seek the full prosecution of the journalist but questions were also raised about Gun City’s role: had it dropped the ball when it came to vetting licences? Restricted items should include any firearm part required in its functioning, including barrels, bolts, trigger groups, receivers and firing pins. Sights, nonfolding and non-telescopic stocks, bipods and other accessories would be exempt. Sale on ammunition components should also be by license check or police form. Currently projectiles, cases, primers and the means to combine them are unregulated meaning anybody could load their own ammunition for guns that were acquired illegally.
A sporting purpose clause should be added to the A category license. Pistol-grip-only shotguns are A category, despite no true sporting purpose, because they meet the length requirement of 30 inches to be classed as a longarm. Armour piercing, incendiary and tracer rounds are legal even with the alarming risk of criminal applications and general fire risk. Only various forms of hollow points and full metal jacket should be legal for sale to any licence holder no matter the endorsements. Despite the military applications of full metal jacket rounds, they do not offer any real advantage to lethality or penetration and are used to comply with international regulations on war limiting unnecessary suffering. This should include deactivated rounds on the collector market and any round sold for display should be drilled through the casing to ensure it can never be viable again.
Silencers and ammunition
Suppressors, more commonly known as silencers, are completely unrestricted for sale in NZ. While some may claim they are necessary safety equipment, their criminal applications outweigh the need for legitimate use, especially considering in ear protection is much more efficient in preventing hearing damage. The license holder who bought firearms, cut them down to pistol size and sold them also fitted many with suppressors. Shooting in built up areas where the noise reduction might be required is already illegal and any shooter using firearms around people should see they are responsible for their safety including providing hearing protection. Commercial hunters and pest removal are the only group with a legitimate needs so restricting suppressors to the E category should be included in the new legislation.
Firearms dealers and store are under no requirement to keep ammunition away from the public. While many stores leave ammunition behind the counter, others leave boxes of rounds on tables for customers to explore. Firearms are required to be locked away so they aren’t easily stolen but ammunition is not. A legal mandate should require all ammo to be locked away with a six month to one year period to allow dealers time to construct any necessary storage.
Efforts to ban large calibre firearms such as those chambered .50BMG, a heavy machinegun round are difficult to word legally to prevent sale to the public. Regulating by specific rounds leaves the laws open to any new or ignored round that comes on the market while regulating by calibre has a number of faults. 12 gauge shotguns rounds are a larger calibre than .50 while being substantially less powerful and states such as California have passed legislation banning civilian ownership of .50 calibre and higher rifles, manufacturers have already found ways around the law such as .416 Barrett and .408 Chey Tac offering most of the power while being civilian legal.
Fully automatic blank firing guns are currently legal to anyone over 18. Available as pistols, revolvers and submachine guns, these weapons cannot use any standard calibres but have increasingly been found by police in the UK and many other countries with modifications to fire live rounds. Both top venting and the much easier to convert front venting are legal for sale in NZ with 30 round magazines and true full automatic fire capability. Deactivated firearms are already legally considered to be firearms by the law and require the necessary license due to the potential of reactivation or being used to threaten the public but not blank firing guns.
Breaches of firearms laws need to be better investigated and prosecuted. There are dozens of incidents that have lead to only warnings despite serious breaches. Convictions unrelated to firearms should bear on licensing far more heavily as many victims of domestic abuse have come forward with the fact that their exes still have their firearms and licenses despite police efforts as the laws cannot act in many instances. Is it right that people with multiple convictions should be able to hold a dealer’s licence?
Detractors will claim there is no way to stop those determined enough but adequate laws can deter those trying to easily gain access to firearms and lessen the damage done by the few who do manage. Restrictions to firearms laws have led to a decrease in gun crime in nearly every jurisdiction that enforces them. Sale by the straw buyers and theft are the biggest means of criminal access to firearms making registration and adequate storage the most effective means of deterrence. The tragedy in Christchurch that took the lives of so many Kiwi Muslims could have been lessened by the restriction of high capacity magazines and better vetting of applicants.
Let’s hope the NZ government takes this as an opportunity to fix all firearms law, not just those that enabled the terrible attacks and that lobbyist groups and dealers choose to put people before profits.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.